Education discussion in Linchpin

Clearly, I’ve been introspective about both the specifics of my teaching and the general properties of higher education. I was feeling like I had found some closure internally, when I sat down last night to read a bit of Seth Godin‘s Linchpin. Two nights ago, I had read a few pages on education, and I was so struck by them that I set my bookmark back intentionally to read them again. I don’t remember ever doing that before, for what it’s worth.

From page 39:

We’ve been taught to be a replaceable cog in a giant machine.

We’ve been taught to consume as a shortcut to happiness.

We’ve been taught not to care about our job or our customers.

And we’ve been taught to fit in.

None of these things helps you get what you deserve.

That’s reasonable, and it echoes what I believe about striving for excellence, about “good enough” simply not being good enough. He goes on to say [p44]:

Teaching people to produce innovative work, off-the-chart insights, and yes, art is time-consuming and unpredictable. Drill and practice and fear, on the other hand, are powerful tools for teaching facts and figures and obedience.

Again, I agree. I read this paragraph over and over again, and it is sobering. He continues [p47]:

What should they teach in school? Only two things:

  1. Solve interesting problems.
  2. Lead.

Right-on. However, then he extrapolates:

The idea of [computing a hypoteneuse] by rote, of relentlessly driving the method home, is a total waste of time.

Now, I’m not so sure that Godin and I are talking about the same thing. While it’s true that most people do not need to memorize the Pythagorean theorem in order to succeed in every day life, this ignores one of the most important aspects of a liberal education: that it trains the mind to think deeply about problems. I came across a compelling argument recently (though I cannot remember where) that said that the point of K-12 math is not to teach mathematical skills, but to hone the learner’s ability to mentally manipulate complex and abstract concepts.

Taking the Pythagorean theorem as an example, it may be true that there are diminishing returns in “relentless” repetition, but on the other hand, it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert. If we want students to be able to even conceive of higher mathematics (i.e. to gain any insight beyond novice or advanced beginners), would they be able to do this without practice? I’m not so sure.

I can’t help but think about Math and Computer Science together here. My Calculus professors in college were traditional mathematicians who made us do volumes of exercises, the same exercises the students before had done. I suppose I learned some Calculus at the time, although now I can only remember the very basics of differentiation and integration, and I certainly don’t remember “series” except by name. Honestly, I don’t really remember clearly what they are for.

My Computer Science professors were, by and large, mathematicians also. (It was a Mathematics and Computer Science Department while I was there.) Our assignments were very similar: build up something non-novel that is a little step above what we built before. Thinking about data structures, I remember binary search trees since we used them again and again as examples, and they are conceptually simple. I remember the names of red-black trees and AVL trees, but I could never build one now without either searching the Web or essentially re-inventing it. That is to say, I don’t have any working knowledge of either advanced data structure aside from knowing that they’re balanced trees.

Also, I am OK with this. I brought up a similar point in a curriculum committee meeting once, and some of my colleagues seemed to think I was nuts, that I didn’t mind not remembering “fundamental” Computer Science ideas. However, it hasn’t stopped me from solving interesting problems, as Seth Godin puts it.

The question remaining for the scientifically inclined is: would I still be able to solve interesting problems without the physical changes in my brain brought about by years of mathematics practice? Several studies in CS education point to time-on-task as a major factor in success, suggesting that motivation works only in that it encourages fruitful practice.

I have been enjoying Linchpin, but this discussion of education is not as black-and-white as the author portrays it, not according to recent research on the science of teaching and learning. Adopting Dreyfus’ terms again, it’s one thing for an expert to spend his/her time solving interesting problems, but novices still need rules and scaffolding to move up the skill acquisition ladder.


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9 Responses to “Education discussion in Linchpin”

  1. Jaek Smith Says:

    While the portions you quote do look overly abstract- I’m not sure you are disagreeing with anything in those portions. (Unless you truly mean ‘memorize’, instead of ‘learn’, the Pythagorean theorum).

    Most likely more context is needed (for someone external (me) to interpret his meaning). There’s an audible edition- maybe I’ll grab it as a next listen. =)

    By the way, I’m wondering if you’re abusing the ~10,000 hours notion here-in. While the experience of math and science in school aids in our capability toward these aspects, these experience are not generally part of the ~10,000 hours discussed. (The 10,000 hours are (I believe) more about application of focus domain oriented working hours). It’s definitely not a ‘put in your time’ type thing, but an application of your time to problem domains which causes cognitive development. Repetitive work can actually work against this effect. (I believe that memorization/engraining makes the brain less mutable (plastic(sp?), as they say now).

  2. Paul Gestwicki Says:

    The context is what I was lacking in Godin’s discussion. He never really says explicitly that he means K-12 education, but I’m pretty sure he does. He doesn’t touch on the philosophical reason for the liberal arts, and this is pretty fundamental to how one frames discussions of education. Reading between the lines, I think he is advocating a liberal education—an education that sets the mind free and allows one to enjoy life’s fullness.

    I do read a lot of serious research and philosophy on education, and while I agree with a lot of what Godin says, it’s all really fluff without putting into the context of the related work. For example, there are some studies that have shown that lecturing actually works better than active learning in some situations. That kind of result shows that the answers are really much deeper than any one dogma of education.

    You’re right that I was misusing the 10k hour argument. It was a little tongue-in-cheek, and I don’t really think that doing 10k hours of Pythagorean theorem actually makes you much better at it. What did make me better at it was seeing the geometric proof for the first time. I wish I knew if it *really was* the first time I saw it—only recently in my life—or I had seen it without really seeing it before.

    There’s a richness between “you should learn to lead and to solve interesting problems” and “the current system is a mess” that he doesn’t address. Ideas without plans are pretty useless: it’s like stopping after just one or two steps of an iterative design thinking process.

    By the way, I am still enjoying the book and still recommend it as food for thought. However, I am enjoying it less than other books I have read that tackle big issues AND are based on data instead of anecdote: Pragmatic Thinking and Learning and Disrupting Class, to name two recently-read examples.

  3. Jaek Smith Says:

    I’m (now) only half way through the book, but I recognized the ‘self help’ style of the book right off – and the particular bent used is dangerous (in my opinion) as he allows himself to make false associations by word trickery (ex: He starts by using ‘art’ as ‘craft’, but then bends this to make associations to what we usually think of as art) and, in some cases he produces bad information (he says (falsely) that the ‘lizard brain’ is the part of the mind that talks us out of doing things).

    I find that I must take his prose from a defensive posture so as to be careful not to allow missociations to enter my mind. (Though, like you said, there are some points that provide for thought).

    In comparison, in general, I trust your growing knowldge base and also experience. (In general, I expect this to become more and more a knowldge base qualified by experience).

    The horrid thing is that self-help style books like Godin’s are plentiful in audible format while books like Pragmatic Thinking don’t tend to make it into this mix. (Note: I’m using this as potentially indicative of the balance of readers between the two types of books – not as a gate to reading).


    So, going back to your original post – yeah, he’s being too abstract, and (further) making missociations in order to try to make his points, which themselves are not very precise and often misleading.

    At least Linchpin is as bad as “The [Religion] of Success”. ;)

    • Jaek Smith Says:

      OOPS- that last sentence was supposed to be:

      At least Linchpin is /NOT/ as bad as “The [Religion] of Success”.

      Major blunder there. (“The [Religion] of Success” is vile due to it’s abuse of science in order to make an obviously inexperienced micropoint into a book).

  4. Paul Gestwicki Says:

    To echo your sentiment, there are large parts of Linchpin where I feel like the author is talking to someone else. Then again, I’m in the minority who actually have a really awesome job that lets me be an artist practically every day.

    I wonder about your comment about the lizard brain. I actually found this part of Godin’s work to be the most compelling, since it’s based on real science: there really is an amygdala that we share with less-advanced species, and it really does control our base urges.

    You really ought to check out Pragmatic Thinking & Learning if you have a chance, even if you can’t get it in audible format. I’d love to read one of your famous multi-post Facebook book reviews of it ;)

    • Jaek Smith Says:

      Problem here is that Godin’s ‘lizard brain’ is not just the amygdala. It’s true that the amygdala (and what other scientists would call the ‘lizard brain’) produce reactive and simple-emotional aspects, but Godin is talking about human nature which comes from the overarching complex of the whole brain-set. (I don’t have the actual quote, but he actually says the lizard brain is what talks us out of stuff … talking yourself out of stuff would require higher order cognition… this may cause the amygdala to react, but after lengths of time I’d easily hazard a guess that we’d find that higher order cognition also learns to respond based on lower order cognition – so you get higher order effective rules, etc).

      I’d suggest that most people will recognize human natures just by identifying the types of thought and resulting effect. Introducing ill defined abstractions of complexes does not aid in this, but rather actually causes the age-old voodoo-and-witchcraft types of feelings that come with not-well understood notions. (If you and I know about brain structure, we won’t feel this effect). Thus, it would be better to focus on human nature, instead of making it sound like there’a another creature living in our heads. (Again, the creature he is talking about is not isolated to the baser portions of our brain, but include threaded thoughts).

      One of my big problems is that Godin is not telling me anything I don’t already know- but he’s telling it with much less precision, and with introduced falsities vs what is possible and has been done. I believe this is partly because he’s playing the crowd that would read self-help books. (I think he might be playing himself also… not sure tho). ;) (This doesn’t mean I don’t expand my conceptions via the prose, but it does mean I spend an exorbitant amount of time deflecting misinformation).

  5. Jacob Barnard Says:

    I wonder, since I’ve not read the book, if Linchpin addresses the notion of balance and not solely ways to become more free-minded. Freedom is great. However, by definition, freedom entails the choice of structure (or in others’ views, constriction).

    A simple botanical example might best illustrate what I mean by “balance.” Consider tomato plants. If left to grow on their own, sure, they might turn out fine. But, give them trellises (or added structure), and their chances of turning out fine may improve.

    Now that I think about it, though, freedom may be the steppingstone to said balance.

    • Jaek Smith Says:

      (Note: I’m not quite 3/4ths through the book).

      While free-minded isn’t particularly the notion presented – in the sense that one must work to overcome basic and potential subvertive human natures, then in a sense you could see it as presenting the need to (in effect) structure your work-effort in a manner to achieve. (Gak, I modified that so many times and it still feels salesy). :P

      This is probably one of the most useful issues discussed in the book- gaining a realization that we each have the nature to subvert ourselves continually, and the need to overcoming these in order to achieve. I don’t know that Linchpin provides a solution to overcoming these – at least I don’t recall anything other than avoiding the behaviors as the solution …? (Other behaviors are discussed which, if they became personal norms, would aid in this, though – it may just be that I didn’t connect the two sides strongly).

  6. Jaek Smith Says:

    Ok, here’s my quantification of my issue with self-help books abusal of science:

    Science is about eeking out detail and seeking truth.

    Self-help books are about establishing better personal norms in order to achieve – they generally present techniques for doing so.

    Such books tend to abuse scientific notions to qualify (give reason for) these the techniques (in order to sell their points).

    In the end, self-help books tend to contain a limited set of often-deep, sometimes-powerful nuggets of insight … which they dilute (in order to make a book) and then qualify (in order to present them as truths) using pseudo-science (by making it look like science) which effectively reduces their value (and science’s value too).

    Overall, Linchpin touches on many self-defeating aspects of human nature … and it doesn’t push the ‘only leaders are successful people’ notion excessively. When the book was focussed on human aspects, it wasn’t bad at all.

    But, just remember, placebos are key to success. (Satire here for when you reach that paragraph). ;)

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